Prisoners and detainees

The most basic principle of human rights is that they apply to everyone. Even those who have been punished with deprivation of their freedom do not lose the rights guaranteed to them by Bulgarian and international legislation. The European Convention on Human Rights notes that some rights are subject to restriction if it is in the interest of society. For this reason, committing a crime may result in the deprivation of liberty. Even in these instances, however, the right to a fair trial is still guaranteed, as are the rights to a personal and family life, personal expression, education, etc., and it is still unacceptable to violate the prohibition on torture and inhumane treatment.

The conditions in the Bulgarian penitentiary system are still among the worst in all of Europe. Although the authorities have made efforts over the last few years to address some of the problems, individuals residing in places of incarceration still face difficulties such as:

  • Abusive behavior towards prisoners and the stubborn refusal of the responsible authorities to investigate these cases;
  • Occasional overcrowding and outdated, dilapidated material conditions;
  • Conditions of detention in a number of detention centers that are far below the standards for humane treatment;
  • Insufficient funds for the maintenance of penitentiary institutions;
  • Prolonged periods of solitary confinement;
  • Exceptionally low-quality medical services;
  • The complete lack of any resocialization policy;
  • The absence of safe means to submit appeals and complaints;
  • High levels of corruption among the administration in the majority of prisons;

In March of 2015, the European Council’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) made its first public statement regarding Bulgaria, in which it reported on the extremely poor conditions in prisons and detention centers—overcrowding, poor hygiene, inadequate medical services, abusive behavior towards persons deprived of liberty, and other problems. The CPT emphasized the need to develop a comprehensive prison policy, rather than focusing exclusively on living conditions. The pilot judgement made by the European Court of Human Rights earlier that year in Neshkov and others v. Bulgaria, for which BHC provided legal aid, lead to important changes in legislation and improvements in living conditions. Between 2015 and 2021, additional means were provided to improve detention conditions and renovations were completed for buildings in several prisons, prison dormitories, and pretrial detention facilities. In 2017, important penitentiary legislation reforms were made, including the introduction of preventative and compensatory means for persons deprived of liberty to protect themselves from inhumane and degrading treatment.

BHC actively works toward:

  • The Ministry of Justice’s fulfillment of their commitment to penitentiary reform, including the improvement of living conditions and the prevention of and protection from abuse and other forms of inhumane and degrading treatment in prisons and detention centers;
  • The prohibition of inhumane and degrading treatment as well as life imprisonment without parole, given that it does not align with modern humanist principles;
  • Ensuring timely, high-quality medical care for persons deprived of liberty;
  • Guaranteeing safe and healthy working conditions for prisoners;
  • The adoption of reform centered on re-education and resocialization, rather than punishment;
  • The improvement of living conditions for females deprived of liberty in Bulgaria, according to their particular needs;
  • Reform in the juvenile justice system and the adoption of an entirely new law in the domain of juvenile justice, one in accordance with the needs and best interest of children;
  • BHC periodically monitors the state of prisons and detention centers and documents the conditions experienced by persons deprived of liberty and the wellbeing of detained individuals, with the goal of preventing and protecting from torture and inhumane or degrading treatment.

In 2014, BHC published the largest study to date on penitentiary institutions where children are deprived of their liberty—including institutions where children serve custodial sentences—and institutions with other functions (pretrial detention, educational supervision, medical treatment, immigration control, etc.).

In 2016, BHC published its very first report, which was centered on the particular problems and needs of women deprived of liberty, including the right to family life, pregnancy, childbirth, and raising children in prison.

In 2017, BHC published a thematic report on the current legislation and implementation of Bulgaria’s most serious punishment—life imprisonment without parole.

BHC conducts strategic litigation with the aim of entirely reforming the penitentiary system. In addition to the pilot judgement in Neshkov and others, the other significant case regarding the rights of prisoners in Bulgaria (also conducted with legal aid from BHC) is Kulinski and Sudev, which focused on prisoners’ right to vote in national and European parliamentary elections.

Furthermore, BHC regularly conveys current information to international human rights organizations on the topic of conditions in penitentiary institutions and the rights of persons deprived of liberty. BHC’s latest submission regarding the execution of the Kehaihov cases (which include Neshkov and others) was considering by the The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe in its recommendations made to Bulgaria concerning measures which remain to be taken to implement the judgement.

In 2020, BHC initiated the implementation of a 3-year project titled Evaluation of Prison Reform in Bulgaria: Legislation and Practice Following the ECtHR’s Pilot Judgement in “Neshkov and Others.” The project’s main goal is to improve the implementation of international human rights standards in prisons and detention centers in Bulgaria. The project combines field research with the conducting of strategic litigation, organizing national and international advocacy campaigns and activities, and educational training for prisoners and lawyers. As part of this initiative, BHC has developed the only electronic portal in Bulgaria which supplies publicly available information on current developments in the penitentiary system: